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- French general and emperor (1769-1821)
Writing romantic love letters can feel like a prehistoric practice in an age where we classify a 2 a.m. “you up?” text as “romance.” But there was once a time in our not so distance past where eloquent prose professing a burning affection (and written by hand!) was the norm. And not just the stuff of sensitive, heterosexual artist types either. History is filled with achingly romantic love letters between two women and between two men, from former kings, presidents, and war generals, and to between two best friends.
For a little inspiration to warm your cold Tinder-hardened heart, we've rounded up the 10 most romantic love letters of all time, from George H.W. Bush's sweet notes to his wife Barbara, to the steamy letters between Virginia Woolf and her female lover. Here: A master class in affectionate prose.
1. Ernest Hemingway to Marlene Dietrich
Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Ernest Hemingway was a prolific, confident writer, famed for his stoic masculinity. But in his letters to actress Marlene Dietrich, he shows a more vulnerable side. Hemingway wrote Dietrich, his best friend, approximately 30 letters between 1949 to 1959. "I can't say how every time I ever put my arms around you I felt that I was home," he wrote in one. (Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, maintained in a New York Times article that the two were merely close friends.)
2. Napoleon to Joséphine
While known for his ruthlessness as a ruler, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also possessed a softer side. In letters to his wife, Joséphine, the military leader reveals a vulnerability not found in his autocratic approach to expanding the French empire. Before you swoon: he divorced her when she could not have children. But Napoleon still continued to write to Joséphine for years after their separation. In one particular letter, penned while Napoleon was commanding the French army near Italy a few months after their marriage, he expressed how much he missed his wife.
"Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Joséphine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you?"
3. Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera
It's no secret that Frida Kahlo and her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, had a tempestuous relationship, but in her love letters to Rivera, you see only an intense love. Kahlo's letters to Rivera stretch across the 27-year span of the couple's relationship, and underscore the powerful if tumultuous connection the two shared. In one letter from The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Kahlo wrote of that deep emotional intimacy.
"Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent flash of lightning. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. My fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours."
4. Georgia O'Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz
Another artist who excelled at writing spicy love letters: famed painter, Georgia O'Keeffe. Over the course of her 30-year romance with celebrated photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe exchanged more than 5,000 letters (that's roughly 25,000 pages) on everything from the mundane ongoings of her daily life to some of her more passionate encounters with Stieglitz. In all, the letters show a far more seductive side to the artist than her flowery paintings may initially suggest.
"Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don't come tomorrow — I don't see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle."
5. Beethoven to his "Immortal Beloved"
The identity of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” to whom the iconic composer and pianist wrote a number of letters in 1812, is still largely a mystery. But the letters themselves paint a very vivid picture of an epic love story. Many historians believe Beethoven's "Beloved" to have been a diplomat’s daughter, named Antonie Brentano, to whom the composer dedicated his "Diabelli Variations Op. 120." In one of his letters found after his death—which was famously quoted in the Sex and the City movie—he wrote:
"Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, Be calm-love me-today-yesterday-what tearful longings for you-you-you-my life-my all-farewell. Oh continue to love me-never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved. Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours."
6. George H. W. Bush to Barbara Bush
Late U.S. President George H. W. Bush was surprisingly romantic in his letters to his wife, Barbara. In 1942, on the heels of World War II, Bush enlisted in the Navy, and while stationed overseas, wrote letters to both his parents and to his then-girlfriend, Barbara Pierce. To this day, only one love letter to Barbara remains from the former president's time overseas, as Barbara reportedly lost the majority of her letters in a move after the pair were married. In the surviving letter, Bush joyfully explained how he envisioned the couple's future.
"This should be a very easy letter to write—words should come easily and in short it should be simple for me to tell you how desperately happy I was to open the paper and see the announcement of our engagement, but somehow I can't possibly say all in a letter I should like to. I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you..."
7. Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan
Another former President whose romantic writings are worth mentioning: Ronald Reagan. In a letter to his wife, Nancy, in 1972, prior to their 20th anniversary, Reagan (who, at the time and prior to his presidency, was serving as the Governor of California) penned a romantic note to his wife expressing his undying love for her, and explaining that he never wants to leave her side.
"The important thing is I don't want to be without you for the next 20 years, or 40, or however many there are. I've gotten very used to being happy and I love you very much indeed."
8. Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas
In June of 1891, Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a then-21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet, who would come to be the author’s muse and lover. In fact, it was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salomé and the four great plays which, to this day, are the cornerstone of his literary legacy. Unfortunately their relationship was not accepted at the time and the duo carried on their affair in secret. Wilde's surviving letters, luckily, make the enduring power of their love clear.
“Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don't understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all,” Wilde wrote. "Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world. I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other."
9. Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn
The King of England for 38 years, Henry VIII wrote his lover, Anne Boleyn, a collection of secret, romantic letters which still survive today. Henry was a despotic ruler with six wives—two of whom he beheaded, including Anne. But he was also noted as a great romantic, as shown in the letters Henry wrote Anne during their years-long courtship.
“But if you please to do the office of a true loyal mistress and friend, and to give up yourself body and heart to me, who will be, and have been, your most loyal servant, (if your rigour does not forbid me) I promise you that not only the name shall be given you, but also that I will take you for my only mistress, casting off all others besides you out of my thoughts and affections, and serve you only,” he wrote. "I beseech you to give an entire answer to this my rude letter, that I may know on what and how far I may depend. And if it does not please you to answer me in writing, appoint some place where I may have it by word of mouth, and I will go thither with all my heart. No more, for fear of tiring you."
10. Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
Celebrated writer Virginia Woolf and English poet Vita Sackville-West exchanged a series of love letters to each another that were, unsurprisingly, beautifully written. But it was perhaps a letter from Vita, sent from Milan on January 21, 1927, that offers the clearest, most unguarded, glimpse into their love story. Unlike Woolf's flowery, ornate prose, West is far more straightforward: "I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way."
“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,” she wrote. "I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it."
Originally Appeared on Glamour